Story — From the July 2016 issue

Vladivostok Station

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For a while there had been no lights along the landscape, but now we could see the distant windows of the farms and, as we headed into the valley, the town.

He asked how the leg was, and I said, “Good. It’s better now.”

It was how we met as children. He had made fun of the way I walked.

Suddenly there was a noise. Kostya stopped. He could always hear the planes before I did. I caught the quick shape of it flying over in the dark. I tried to make out Kostya’s expression but there was just his head tilted and his eyes under the evening. He was still carrying my bag.

© David Gilkey/NPR/ReduxA military base was nearby. They often did their practice runs in the evening. I knew this because Kostya had flown with them. I saw very little of him then. He would come back during a furlough but that was all. I wasn’t supposed to know where he was but I knew that everyone on the base was in Chechnya during those years. The seasons grew slower, and for extra pay I started working at the maintenance station.

When Kostya came home, he stopped flying planes. I thought he would come work with me at the station but he stayed at the inn, cleaning the rooms. He didn’t seem to mind that there were fewer guests, less to do. I would come home sometimes to find him cleaning a tub, trying to remove a stain that was many years old. “Kostya,” I would say. “It’s good enough.” And he would smile and nod, put the cleaning supplies away, and head to his room.

I wondered now whether my father was worrying about me. I wondered where Kostya was sleeping tonight. He had yet to mention his house. I didn’t want him to see it. But we were approaching the split in the road. If we went straight we would go down a slope farther into the valley and enter the town. The road on the left was narrower and still unpaved, with a sign that directed travelers to a small lake.

I took my bag from him. I said, “Kostya, where are you staying? Let’s go to the inn.”

But Kostya ignored me and turned onto the dirt road. So I followed him. It was the one road that had remained unchanged since we were children, except for the lamps that now shone on the path and the surrounding grass. We used to play soccer here. Or I would try.

The lake appeared. It was the only moment tonight when Kostya walked faster than I could. I let him. He kept slipping in and out of the light of the road lamps. I could see the reflection of the mountain in the water.

We were nearing three houses that stood behind a line of trees. Kostya had been born in the middle one. I thought he would enter the short pathway toward the front door, but he simply paused and looked across at his old house and the two others, keeping his distance.

None of their lights were on. The houses had been empty and in disrepair for a while now. The roofs were broken by the winters. Sleeping bags and empty bottles littered the front lawns. Kids used the houses for parties. From the town, I could catch their flashlights in the trees, or the smoke of a bonfire. Hear their music, the bottles they broke.

Kostya walked into the field, toward the lake. He found an overturned canoe with a crack in its hull. He brushed the dirt and the weeds away and sat down. I sat beside him, rubbing a knot in my leg.

“I’m sorry, Kostya,” I said.

“I was thinking of working on the house,” he said. “I could fix it up.”

“I’ll help,” I said.

In the dark I thought he smiled.

“Yes,” he said. “We’ll work on it.”

We had lost a ball once. It floated into the center of the lake and I was the first to swim out. It never occurred to me that my leg would cramp up, and I panicked, I went down, and for a moment I felt nothing. It was as though I had found a different place, something far greater than a lake, and it was wonderful to me. I wanted to stay. But I was pulled up. Kostya dove and pulled me up.

A radio tower was blinking on the mountain. It looked like a single tree on the far ridge. On the island, our grandfathers had felled trees. Then, later, they mined coal. They were kept there for six years, through the war, never knowing where they were exactly in the world. They even met men who were unaware that they were on an island. They had left Korea in a cargo hold and arrived dehydrated and disoriented, and for six years they worked. Our grandfathers worked while the bodies of those who didn’t survive were carted away. They worked as planes flew overhead, erasing briefly the sounds of the sawing and the drilling and the coughing.

Once a month they were brought to the sea. They were given time to bathe. It was the only time the guards didn’t seem to care what they did. Someone always tried to escape. One person always tried to swim. The guards let them. And our grandfathers would say nothing and hurry to clean themselves as the man vanished into a swell, rose, kept going. Sometimes they would come back a month later to find an unrecognizable body on the shore, picked at by the birds.

When I was young I didn’t understand what an island was. I used to believe the camp lay just beyond the mountain range. That they were right there. I used to hold my grandfather’s ruined hands and feel the curve of his spine and wonder if the misshapen bones in my body were from him.

“Kostya,” I said. “Were you looking for me? When you were on your way to the station?”

The radio tower continued to blink. We hadn’t moved from the canoe.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I was just looking.”

He had brought nothing with him. During the war in Chechnya I used to listen to the radio as often as I could. Whenever Kostya returned I asked him how bad it was. “Not bad,” he always said. And in the years following I forgot that he had gone at all, the two of us living together at the inn the way we did when we were younger.

I used to hope that he would take me into the air. But he never did. I would get angry at him. I would act like a child. And he would let me. He would stand there and let me say things to him. And I remembered this now. And I remembered how much I had once missed him.

Something skimmed the surface of the water. We heard it. We followed the wake.

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is the author of a novel, Snow Hunters, and a story collection, Once the Shore. A second collection, The Mountain, will be published next year.

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